Courtesy of Versus

October 20, 2015

STANTON | Why Bother With Something New?

Print More


Courtesy of Versus

Courtesy of Versus

Over the weekend, I found myself compelled to watch Netflix’s latest original content, Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. Acquired in a groundbreaking distribution deal this summer, Beasts is a bold choice for the service’s first piece of feature-length content. It tells the terrifying — yet all too relevant — story of a child rebel soldier named Agu (Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah, in a brilliant debut) in a nameless African country, brought up under the brainwashing tutelage of his Commandant (Idris Elba). While I didn’t expect light viewing, Fukunaga is entirely merciless in his depiction of Agu’s harsh realities. The imagery is inescapable and unrelenting; the kind of stuff that keeps people up at night.

Once the film ended, I registered it as an important work that I would never want to watch again, and hurriedly washed it down with my (approximate) 50th viewing of I Love You, Man. An embarrassingly bro-y film, for sure, but one of the few I have saved to my computer and could watch over and over again. The juxtaposition of viewing it after Beasts brought to my mind the question: What about a movie makes it rewatchable?  

“Individual preference” is an easy and mostly accurate response, but it dismisses the broader cultural importance of Hollywood to America, and also ignores why certain movies resonate with large audiences. Some films take on lives as cultural landmarks, and they become as fun to view for their iconic moments as they are for any intrinsic value. The “horse head in the bed” scene from The Godfather doesn’t shock viewers these days, but rather gives them a sense of watching something historically significant occur firsthand. If factors as immeasurable as iconography can help a film hold up under repeat viewings, then the question of what constitutes rewatchability becomes much more complex.

In an effort to quantify this intangible, the folks over at FiveThirtyEight a site that tries, but often fails, at producing a more legitimate form of clickbait — polled almost 5,000 Americans on their five “most rewatchable films.” It’s a horribly imperfect method, not least because it indirectly restricts the survey to Hollywood movies. Yet the results also illuminate actual trends that agree with common sense and, likely, with your own viewing patterns.

For one, American audiences love to rewatch epics. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Wizard of Oz each ranked in the top 10, as geeks (myself included) love to have viewing parties of the first two, and the latter is one of the earliest “classics” still viewed by general audiences today. In support of my earlier statement about iconic films, It’s a Wonderful Life, Casablanca and Gone With the Wind (a.k.a. four hours of racism) all ranked highly, as did gangster epics like Godfather and Goodfellas. The only other notable trend was strong support for romantic classics like Pretty Woman and The Notebook. But what do these broad (and dubiously determined) data points trickle down to say about what films individuals find rewatchable?

In Hollywood’s early days, movies were thought of as mere escapism, a cheap means of avoiding reality for an hour and a half. This helped create a longstanding conception of movies as a “lower” art form than literature, and later gave way to the binary of “serious” versus “blockbuster” fare. Even now that they’re a respected art form, movies often do act as escapism, and it makes sense that audiences would find joy in repeatedly viewing fantasy epics where good trumps evil. Films like Beasts of No Nation force us to confront realities we’d rather ignore, so we gravitate toward works that either empathize with our own problems or help us to forget them. We find comfort in the relatable and reprieve in fantasy.

Pretenses of statistics aside, my own discussions with friends on this topic have consistently divided rewatchable films into the vague categories of the fantastical and the relatable. In the former, people often mention movies with twist endings, the feature-length mind fucks that leave you feeling incompetent after the first viewing. In the best examples — Usual Suspects comes to mind — repeat viewings allow you to pick up on foreshadows, knowing full well what’s behind the curtain at the end. And if we use the term “fantastical” loosely, it opens up the conversation to non-relatable films that simply have aesthetics, characters or dialogue that age well with familiarity. In this way, rewatching movies like Trainspotting or Pulp Fiction feels a bit like a reunion, even though they take place in their own insulated worlds.

While surveys and conversations can be helpful in trying to understand trends, I’d argue that the movies people most often rewatch of their own volition are associated with nostalgia or emotional resonance. These can be universal (anyone who went to high school can relate to Breakfast Club) or specific, but I’ve found the most rewatchable films preserve a specific time or feeling in a way no other art form can.